Climate change causes ‘catastrophic breeding failure’ among emperor penguin population

Penguins are among the world’s most recognizable and favorite animal species. But climate change is putting significantly more pressure on emperor penguin populations in Antarctica, and they just suffered yet another major blow according to a new study.

For the last three years, emperor penguins have experienced difficulty breeding ever since part of the Halley Bay ice sheet located in the Weddell Sea collapsed into the ocean. The same ice break-up has been occurring every year since. Tragically, thousands of emperor penguin chicks have perished with each collapse, leaving scientists deeply concerned that the second largest emperor penguin population has been wiped out.

“The colony at Halley Bay colony has now all but disappeared, whilst the nearby Dawson Lambton colony has markedly increased in size, indicating that many of the adult emperors have moved there, seeking better breeding grounds as environmental conditions have changed,” the research team said

Co-author of the study Phil Trathan, of the British Antarctic Survey, explained the extent of the devastation.

“We’ve never seen a breeding failure on a scale like this in 60 years,” he said. “It’s unusual to have a complete breeding failure in such a big colony.”

Indeed, the colony numbers between 14,000-25,000 breeding pairs of penguins. And regardless of whether or not climate change is the cause, Trathan warned that the worst is not over for these flightless birds.

“Even taking into account levels of ecological uncertainty, published models suggest that emperor penguins numbers are set to fall dramatically,” he said.

In fact, the numbers could fall by as much as 70 percent “of their numbers before the end of this century as sea-ice conditions change as a result of climate change.”

And the failure at Wedell Bay, considered a safe refuge for penguins in the face of rising global temperatures, now stands as a signal that not even the safest and most stable environments are exempt from being ravaged by climate change.

“What’s interesting for me is not that colonies move or that we can have major breeding failures — we know that,” Trathan said. “It’s that we are talking here about the deep embayment of the Weddell Sea, which is potentially one of the climate change refugia for those cold-adapted species like emperor penguins. If we see major disturbances in these refugia — where we haven’t previously seen changes in 60 years — that’s an important signal.”

As the ice continues to melt and buckle, the penguin population will continue to be threatened with annihilation. Perhaps, soon, the only place we will be able to see an emperor penguin will be in zoos where technology can provide the ice and cool temperatures necessary for them to survive. But that day will be a sad day, not a happy one.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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